Vincent Van Gogh’s Favorite Books

Piles of French Nov­els, Vin­cent Van Gogh, 1887

Among lovers of Vin­cent van Gogh, the Dutch artist is as well known for his let­ter writ­ing as for his extra­or­di­nary paint­ing. “The per­son­al tone, evoca­tive style and live­ly lan­guage” of his cor­re­spon­dence, writes the Van Gogh Muse­um, “prompt­ed some peo­ple who were in a posi­tion to know to accord the cor­re­spon­dence the sta­tus of lit­er­a­ture. The poet W.H. Auden, who pub­lished an anthol­o­gy with a brief intro­duc­tion, wrote: ‘there is scarce­ly one let­ter by Van Gogh which I, who am cer­tain­ly no expert, do not find fas­ci­nat­ing.’”

Auden was, of course, an expert on the writ­ten word, though maybe not on Van Gogh, and he refined his lit­er­ary exper­tise the same way the painter did: by read­ing as copi­ous­ly as he wrote. “When it was too dark to paint,” writes Uni­ver­si­ty of Puer­to Rico pro­fes­sor of human­i­ties Jef­frey Her­li­hy Mera at the Chron­i­cle of High­er Edu­ca­tion, “Van Gogh read prodi­gious­ly and com­piled a tremen­dous amount of per­son­al cor­re­spon­dence.” Much of his writ­ing, espe­cial­ly his let­ters to his broth­er Theo, was in French, a lan­guage he learned in his teens and spoke in Bel­gium, Paris, and Arles.

Van Gogh’s com­mand of writ­ten French, how­ev­er, came from his read­ing of Vic­tor Hugo, Guy de Mau­pas­sant, and Émile Zola. “Vin­cent loved lit­er­a­ture,” the Van Gogh Muse­um writes. “In gen­er­al, the books he read reflect­ed what was going on in his own life. When he want­ed to fol­low in his father’s foot­steps and become a min­is­ter, he read books of a reli­gious nature. He devoured Parisian nov­els when he was con­sid­er­ing mov­ing to the French cap­i­tal.”

In his let­ters to Theo, he weaves togeth­er the sacred and pro­fane, describ­ing his spir­i­tu­al and cre­ative striv­ings and his unre­quit­ed obses­sions. In his read­ing, he test­ed his val­ues and desires. We get a sense of how Van Gogh’s read­ing com­ple­ment­ed his pious, yet roman­tic nature in the list of some of his favorites, below, com­piled by the Van Gogh Muse­um.

  • Charles Dick­ens, A Christ­mas Car­ol (1843)
  • Jules Michelet, L’amour (1858)
  • Émile Zola, L’Oeu­vre (1886)
  • Alphonse Daudet, Tar­tarin de Taras­con (1887)
  • The Bible
  • John Keats, The Eve of St. Agnes (1820)
  • George Eliot, Scenes of Cler­i­cal Life (1857)
  • Hen­ry Wadsworth Longfel­low, The Poet­i­cal Works of Hen­ry Wadsworth Longfel­low (1887)
  • Hans Chris­t­ian Ander­sen, What the Moon Saw (1862)
  • Thomas a Kem­p­is, The Imi­ta­tion of Christ (1471–1472)
  • Har­ri­et Beech­er Stowe, Uncle Tom’s Cab­in (1851–1852)
  • Edmond de Goncourt, Chérie (1884)
  • Vic­tor Hugo, Les mis­érables (1862)
  • Hon­oré de Balzac, Le Père Gori­ot (1835)
  • Guy de Mau­pas­sant, Bel-Ami (1885)
  • Pierre Loti, Madame Chrysan­thème (1888)
  • Voltaire, Can­dide (1759)
  • Shake­speare, Mac­beth (c. 1606–1607)
  • Shake­speare, King Lear (1606–1607)
  • Charles Dick­ens, Hard Times (1854)
  • Emile Zola, Nana (1880)
  • Emile Zola, La joie de vivre (1884)

“Vin­cent read moral­is­tic books often favoured among mem­bers of the Protes­tant Chris­t­ian com­mu­ni­ty” in which he was raised by his min­is­ter father. He looked also to the moral­i­ty of Charles Dick­ens, whose works he “read and reread… through­out his life.” Zola’s “rough, direct nat­u­ral­ism” appealed to Van Gogh’s desire “to give an hon­est depic­tion of what he saw around him: farm labour­ers, a weath­ered lit­tle old man, deject­ed or work­ing women, a soup kitchen, a tree, dunes and fields.”

In Alphonse Daudet’s 1887 Tar­tarin de Taras­con, “an enter­tain­ing car­i­ca­ture of the south­ern French­man,” Van Gogh sat­is­fied his “need for humor and satire.” Despite the stereo­type of the artist as per­pet­u­al­ly tor­tured, his let­ters con­sis­tent­ly reveal his good-natured sense of humor. From French his­to­ri­an Jules Michelet’s 1858 L’amour, the artist “found wis­dom he could apply to his own love life,” tumul­tuous as it was. He used Michelet’s insights “to jus­ti­fy his choic­es,” such as “when he fell in love with his cousin Kee Vos.”

In a let­ter to Theo, Vin­cent expressed his emo­tion­al strug­gles over Vos’s rejec­tion of him as “a great many ‘pet­ty mis­eries of human life,’ which, if they were writ­ten down in a book, could per­haps serve to amuse some peo­ple, though they can hard­ly be con­sid­ered pleas­ant if one expe­ri­ences them one­self.” He is at a loss for what to do with him­self, he writes, but “‘wan­der­ing we find our way,’ and not by sit­ting still.” For Van Gogh, “wan­der­ing” just as often took the form of sit­ting still with a good book.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

A Com­plete Archive of Vin­cent van Gogh’s Let­ters: Beau­ti­ful­ly Illus­trat­ed and Ful­ly Anno­tat­ed

Down­load Hun­dreds of Van Gogh Paint­ings, Sketch­es & Let­ters in High Res­o­lu­tion

13 Van Gogh’s Paint­ings Painstak­ing­ly Brought to Life with 3D Ani­ma­tion & Visu­al Map­ping

Josh Jones is a writer and musi­cian based in Durham, NC. Fol­low him at @jdmagness

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